My father is from the Greek village of Ardactos on the island of Crete. When I was a kid, we — my dad, mom, sister, and I — went there a couple of times to visit his family. We stayed in the house he grew up in, enjoying time with his family, relaxing, and eating. I recall spending most of my time in the pool, hanging out with my cousins. As an adult, I try to go back every year, but now I spend more time in the kitchen than the pool. That’s because the women in my dad’s family are fantastic cooks, and I’ve been lucky enough to learn from them as they prepare food for everyone in the house. While they make many wonderful Greek specialties, my favorite by far is moussaka.
A hearty casserole, moussaka features layers of eggplant and potatoes topped with a savory, tomatoey meat sauce and a creamy-yet-light béchamel that’s baked until browned and bubbly. One bite, and you swoon because the layers have melded together to create an incredibly delicious, comforting dish.
Aunt Angeliki (my dad’s sister) makes an amazing moussaka. Admittedly, she has an advantage: Eggplant grown on Crete are the best I’ve ever tasted. But much of what she does will translate no matter where you’re making moussaka. I know this because now when I visit, I help her make it. It takes a while; like lasagne, each layer is prepared separately before being assembled in one large baking dish. The work, however, can be spread out, and the house gets filled with heady aromas as we make the moussaka.
Cooking with my aunt, I took note of the things she does to make her moussaka so good. She salts her eggplant, for instance, to draw out moisture to keep the casserole from being soggy. She uses ground beef for her meat sauce layer (not lamb as some do) so that the flavor doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the ingredients. Sometimes she fries the eggplant and sometimes she roasts it (I prefer the latter), but she always fries the potatoes to get a perfectly silken tender-creamy texture. I think her true secret, though, is the love she puts into making it. I’m thrilled to share her recipe, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I always do.
The meat sauce may be made ahead, but set aside a chunk of time to prep the eggplant, potato, and béchamel layers just before you put everything together. Assembling and baking the moussaka is the easy part. Factor in about a half-hour of resting time before serving.